January 30, 2018

The Villainess: Getting Even Means Bloody Hell

I'm going to go out on a severed limb and say that action auteur Jung Byung-gil's The Villainess may have more fatal throat stabbings than any other crime pic I've ever seen. The incredibly gory opening sequence alone shows our anti-heroine Sook-hee (Min Ye-ji) walking purposefully through a grimy building where, once her guns run out of ammo, she pulls out her knives then slits, slices, severs, cuts, slashes, eviscerates, and punctures the neck of every man who gets in her way — all of which we experience from a shooter-game POV meant to replicate the first-hand view of our angry young woman. Since she's not capable of killing everyone, she's eventually captured and given plastic surgery because that'll make her lose her memory. Because her face looks so different. Because you can't remember who you are if you look totally different, right? Especially if you're prettier!

Okay, okay. The logic is wobbly. But The Villianess is really a movie created for people who will eagerly put aside concerns around plausibility if it means watching a tough woman who likes to fight and knows how to win. I mean, who doesn't want to see a bride holding a sniper? My problem with The Villainess is that none of the other women who've been trained at the assassin school where the older Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) has her killer instincts refined, possess a skill level that's anywhere close to hers. Her future husband Hyun-soo (Jung Suk), a graduate of the boys program, never really gets to strut his stuff while her former husband Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), an instructor (?), needs a better storyline. Maybe Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), our respected Dean of Death, needs to hire a more vicious staff so that her graduates are deadlier after they've donned their caps and gowns. For now, the program can only bring those with natural talents at taking someone out to the highest level. The rest of the students are doomed to be practice targets for bullets, fists, and yes, knives. This villainess doesn't have a true rival. I guess she's her own worst enemy.

January 22, 2018

A Basketball Family Team: My Worst Nightmare as a Comedy

Until yesterday, I would've insisted that movies involving Satanic possession were the scariest ones out there. How little did I know! For neither The Exorcist nor The Evil Dead came even close to preparing me for the hellish nightmare portrayed in Chon Chong-pal's A Basketball Family Team. This truly twisted sitcom concerns a young, female musician who marries into a family of athletes who somehow brainwash her into loving b-ball and leaving her piano playing behind. She's not the only one indoctrinated into this cult of unending fitness. The family intellectual, a nerdy engineer, goes from outsider to coach as he comes to realize that nothing could be more worthy of his time than reading old basketball magazines and then coming up with new plays and well-conceived strategies.

As someone who sees sports and art, more often than not, as enemies — the first cultivating a pack mentality; the latter, internal reflection — I was infuriated by this North Korean propaganda film extolling the virtues of basketball as the ultimate form of team-building and selflessness. Never mind all the bullying that takes place (especially by the family patriarch). Never mind the inability of any of the athletes to accept any viewpoint but their own (or the cowardice of the outsiders to hold their own). Never mind that none of the actors look like athletes. Placing the action in a world of ugly wallpaper and forced gaiety, the sinister truth is apparent: A world without art is a world without beauty or wit, even if a woman gets to be the captain of the team.

The sad part is I actually like sports movies as a rule. But if you're looking for a recommendation in this regard, try A Barefoot Dream (about soccer), Lifting King Kong (about weightlifting), or Crying Fist (about boxing). If it's basketball or nothing, then there's always the documentary Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang. My nutshell review: It's only January but A Basketball Family Team may still end up being my least favorite movie of the year.

January 14, 2018

Across Land, Across Sea: A Family of Defectors

Songgook escaped from North Korea as a teenager. His eventual wife Sueryun and her mother also escaped across the Tumen River into China, although his mother-in-law was eventually captured and sold off to a Chinese rural farmer. Having married the former, he seeks to liberate the latter... and then shortly thereafter, with the help of his church, seeks to free additional members of her family including her brother, her aunt, and a couple of cousins. If that doesn't constitute a very good husband, I don't know what does. Come to think of it Across Land, Across Sea, the short documentary that chronicles his rescue efforts feels a bit like a home movie. It has its slow stretches and its gripping moments, its repetitive chunks and its touching scenes — and all of it is connected by the spirit of devotion.

Directed in part by journalist Lee Hark-joon, this short documentary is like one of those long personal biographical features in the Sunday paper in which you learn lots of details about a kind of Everyman doing remarkable things in a fairly humble manner. You also hear strange bits that aren't delved into too deeply — like how North Korean defectors are sequestered for six months to make sure they aren't spies and, probably, undergo deprogramming. You also wonder where the church is getting the funds to rent out multiple boats capable of sailing into international waters far from the coast. Are Songgook's escapades an isolated case? It hardly seems likely.

Yet he's a pretty remarkable man, working long hours doing construction and other odd jobs. And speaking of devotion, respect should be paid to filmmaker Lee as well who spent five years covering North Korean defectors by living among them in China. Because it's focused on one simple working-class family, Across Land, Across Sea doesn't have the scope of The Defector: Escape From North Korea or the art world glamor of I Am Sun Mu, but the perils are real; the struggle, laudable; and the tale, no less worthy of telling.

January 7, 2018

The Juchee Idea: Film as Conceptual Art, Perhaps

What was director Jim Finn's intent when he was making The Juchee Idea? Was it to make a sly documentary about filmmaker Lee Jung Yoon's time as a visiting artist at a commie communal farm well outside Pyongyang? Was it to illustrate the theoretical ideas outlined in dictator Kim Jong-il's On the Art of the Cinema? Was it to satirize the North Korean view of Western culture by way of a series of stiffly executed dialogues representing capitalist and socialist "uses" of the English language? Maybe the answer is yes to all of the above. I'm not sure. What I do know is that the various pieces neither stick together nor comment on each other so much as they all seem to coexist independently. In a way, The Juchee Idea feels like a cut-up. Finn definitely has some cool archival footage, an odd performance art sensibility, and access to what look to be entertaining North Korean films. What he's missing is a narrative through line. Maybe he never intended to have one.

By far the most fascinating parts of Finn's amalgamated movie are those sections which split-screen footage from a handful of North Korean propaganda films (such as hard-to-find titles like An Urban Girls Gets Married and Girls From My Hometown) with quotes from Kim's very intriguing film theory book. But the documentary footage of Lee being interviewed by interdisciplinary artist Daniela Kostova is shot in a way that has left me unsure of how seriously or satirically to take it. Same for the brief scenes of the "indicative conversations" — featuring an especially affected performance from Oleg Mavromatti. It's not quite funny so much as bizarre. The film kindly clocks in at sixty minutes so you're unlikely to get bored as Finn switches genres, tones, and storylines. But you're unlikely to get enlightened into the actual Juchee idea — which is North Korea's philosophy of self-reliance spiked with Marxism.

Korean Grindhouse has a page devoted exclusively to North Korean movies — both documentaries about the country and films that were created there. Check it out!

January 2, 2018

The Flower Girl: Total Class

"What is the matter with the poor is poverty; what is the matter with the rich is uselessness."

You can depend on George Bernard Shaw when you're looking for a good quote about class. And the zinger above applies as nicely to the North Korean drama The Flower Girl as it does to all spirited "power to the people" movies that address the struggles to survive when you're flat broke and the boss couldn't give a rat's ass. Per usual, the unscrupulous landlord (Ko So Am) and his irritable wife never notice how hungry and destitute their tenant-servants are. They mistake their own mean-spirited gestures towards sustaining subsistence with acts of generosity. As the "haves," they're all about "me, me, me" while the "have-nots" are sometimes sick, widowed, and stuck with three kids (and no help in sight). As we all know, the silk-gloved hand is usually the last to reach out to help and the first to grab back what it feels it owns. Indeed this particular batch of rich rubes is making matters worse for one particular downtrodden mother (Ru Hu Nam) by scalding her younger blind daughter (Son Pak Hwa) then demanding rent money or eviction when the poor ailing matriarch desperately needs some medicine. What's a flower girl (Hong Yong Hui) to do?

I like that this movie passes no judgment when the infuriated son causes a fire at the landowners' property then escapes from the chain gang then storms the not-so-fine folks' fine house with his enraged fellow villagers upon his return. The people united shall never be defeated. Though not as witty as Shaw, that's also true. Released in 1972, The Flower Girl doesn't feel North Korean in its politics so much as Marxist. Equal distribution of wealth, working as a community, striking down the upper class (and the imperialist Japanese) by taking to arms... Hey, it can happen. The only problem here in the USA is that most people don't want equality, they want to be rich. Even Shaw's flower girl Eliza Doolittle is tempted to marry into money. And who can blame her?